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Job done, title objective still on course... but it's a gain with pain

Ireland 56-19 Italy

Home comforts: Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw is tackled by Italy’s Marcello Violi
Home comforts: Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw is tackled by Italy’s Marcello Violi
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Despite admitting that the Six Nations standings have a wholly satisfactory look to them after two rounds, Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt remains a man who doesn't deal in such terms.

Any game against the Italians must be looked at through the prism of the opposition's limitations, and as such Schmidt, with two championship medals on his CV already, wasn't getting too carried away by the eight-try romp that took his team top of the table over England by virtue of points difference.

"If you said nine points after two games beforehand I would have bitten your hand off but we would love to have 13 points from three," he said, with reference to the game against Wales next up.

"We do feel that we've gained a bit of confidence in going to France and then having the home game against Italy to get that bonus point just allows us a bit of confidence that we're heading in the right direction.

"You do feel that you've a chance when you can get those two wins and especially an away win first up. You know that your next two games are at home, we haven't lost a home Six Nations game in the five years that I've been involved so there's a real benchmark and pride that we can hopefully defend."

With Robbie Henshaw and Jacob Stockdale bagging braces of scores, and Rory Best, Bundee Aki, Conor Murray and Keith Earls also getting over the whitewash, it was the most tries Schmidt's side have scored against a tier one nation since, unsurprisingly, the last time they played Italy.

Coming off the back of a victory in Paris that was delivered without the benefit of a try, Ireland displayed a greater potency against a side who found themselves rarely benefiting from possession of the ball, especially in the first-half.

Conor O'Shea's side had no answer for the running lines of Aki, Stockdale and Henshaw off Ireland's imperious half-back pairing of Johnny Sexton and man-of-the-match Conor Murray.

Things got loose in the end game when that duo departed, although even with the game already won and bonus-point secured, Ireland still matched their visitors blow for blow in a final quarter that included international try numbers five and six for Ulster's Stockdale.

"There were a few inaccuracies," said Schmidt with a typically forensic eye.

"I was really happy with the way we started. We played with good width and most of it was accurate but we turned the ball over more than we planned to.

"I felt we scored some really good tries in those first 40 minutes and to keep them to nil was a good effort because you saw the way they played in the second half, they can play well when they have the ball. We got passive defensively in the last quarter."

But while also displeased with the level of inaccuracy that developed throughout the game, Schmidt knows too that unlocking the other defences in this competition will require something a little more intricate.

Ireland have almost two weeks before Warren Gatland and Schmidt renew acquaintances in Dublin, while there is another break in the fixture list ahead of the visit of Scotland and the red-ringed date with England in Twickenham.

"Wales will be a whole different scenario," Schmidt said. "They play a lot of territory, they force you to bring the ball back against a full line of defence, they are very attacking as a defensive side and then they squeeze you and force errors.

"They have guys who are quick and turn things around very quickly, the likes of Gareth Davies getting that intercept [against Scotland] and Steff Evans on the edges.

"Josh Adams was very good last week along with some of the more well-known guys that we know are class - the likes of Scott Williams running their midfield and Leigh Halfpenny at the back."

It will be his own personnel of greater concern though. Josh van der Flier was lost for the championship in Paris and Robbie Henshaw seems sure to follow suit after what appeared to be a dislocated shoulder.

While Van der Flier's loss was more easily absorbed thanks to Ireland's back-row depth and the hoped for return of Sean O'Brien, soldiering on without their 13 is more problematic.

Already missing Ulster's Jared Payne, Garry Ringrose has also been absent of late and if he didn't return in time for Wales on February 24, Schmidt would be down to his fourth choice outside centre - a selection that could include Fivemiletown native Chris Farrell, switching Bundee Aki and including Rory Scannell or even former Ulster centre Sammy Arnold who trained with the side before the championship.

"Garry is making really good progress. (This) weekend might be one weekend too soon but he is not far away," said Schmidt looking at Leinster's game against the Scarlets in the RDS that will take place during this Six Nations down week.

"For him to come back off an injury lay-off and play straight against Wales, that will be a tough call. But it's a call based on Garry's contributions and other times he has played - he was superb on the summer tour and he's such an intelligent player that he adds value when he does come into the side.

"That is one of the alternatives if Robbie, as we suspect, will be unavailable."

In the interim, with no fixture this weekend, Ireland will not re-assemble until tomorrow evening ahead of a short training camp in Athlone.

Schmidt added that he suspected he would require in the region of 22 players for those sessions with the remainder of his squad set to be released to play for their provinces in the weekend's PRO14 action.

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